THE NORMANS: FREDERIK II, WHITE WINES AND AGRODOLCE and RICOTTA

THE NORMANS: FEDERICO II, WHITE WINES AND AGRODOLCE

Ruggero II incoronated MonrealecopyThe Normans, or men from the north, arrived in Sicily at about the year 1060. They came armed for battle, and determined to conquer a new kingdom. Rough and uncultured, the Normans found themselves facing a much more evolved and culturally diverse population.

 Frederik II, also known as “Stupor Mundi”, (“Wonder of the World”) of the Hohenstaufen family, and a direct descendant of Federico Barbarossa (Redbeard), settled in Palermo, effectively making that city the capital of the Kingdom of Sicily. A man of science, and a lover of poetry (he founded the Sicilian School of Poetry 1230-1260 as one of his first attempts at unifying the “vulgar Italian” languages), Federico II was tolerant, and open to diverse cultural and religious experiences. Indeed, it was he, who, for the first time during the Middle Ages, founded a strongly centralized, secular state. 

 

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The culturally eclectic sovereign loved to surround himself with both Western and Arabic academics, poets, and Jewish counselors, and, most of all, beautiful women, in keeping with Sheikh and Emirate tradition that ruled over various cities within the Sicilian kingdoms.

This  was a period of great prosperity and peace for Sicily and its inhabitants.

It is said that Federico’s culinary curiosity and experimentation led to the discovery of “agro-dolce”, or, “sweet and sour“, as it is called in English.

 

 vino bianco Alcamo editedThe agro-dolce usually consists of a sauce made with vinegar, sugar and onions, which is often used as a condiment to fried fish, and for which Frederik II was a glutton. He loved “Bianco d’Alcamo”wine.

This same sauce, with the addition of fried eggplant, capers and olives (the tomato arrived from America during the XVI century) was used to compliment capon and other poultry. The poor, however, who could rarely afford meat, were left only with the vegetable portion, and so caponata was born.

Ann Stutch, musician, world traveler, and lover of Sicily, offers some insight into the early days of caponata:

“Eggplant was first cultivated in India as long as 4,000 years ago, but was unknown in other parts of the world. The Arabs knew eggplant, and when they conquered Sicily in 831 A.D., they introduced many vegetables  to the island, where it flourished and finally became indigenous. Caponata originated as seagoing fare. It was known as the mariner’s breakfast, since it keeps well because the vinegar acts as a preservative. It then became known as “inn food“. The word, caponata, derives from the Latin word caupo, which means tavern or inn. The sweet and sour taste of the dish comes directly from the Arabs, as does the use of raisins. When the Arabs conquered Sicily, they saw an island covered with vineyards that had produced wine for millennia. They were Muslim and could not drink alcohol. So they picked the grapes, dried them in the sun and used them for cooking. Thus we have raisins.”

 

Caponata.Siciliana  copy small

 

It was around this time (900-1200 A.D.) when Sicilians began producing large quantities of white wine, particularly in the region between Palermo and Trapani. White wine was drunk cool and in its pure form. An optimal refreshment during the summer heat, white wine became the preferred beverage for travelers on horseback, who journeyed long distances at a time and rested overnight at caravansaries, or Arab-style inns that could accommodate caravans in their large courtyards.

 

FREDERIK II and how to eat Ricotta

ricotta cheese big copyAccording to Mr. Wright, one of the earliest mentions or depictions of ricotta is related to Sicily:“Professor Santi Correnti, chairman of the history department of the University of Catania and a preeminent historian of Sicily, writes that during the reign of the Sicilian king Frederick II, in the early 13th century, the king and his hunting party came across the hut of a dairy farmer making ricotta and, being ravenous, asked for some. Frederick  pulled out his bread loaf, poured the hot ricotta and whey on top and advised his retinue that : “cu’ non mancia ccu’ so’ cucchiaru lassa tutto ‘o zammataru” (those who don’t eat with his own spoon will leave all their ricotta behind).

Cannoli Palermitani by VRC copy”The first depiction of the making of ricotta is an illustration in the medical treatise known as the “Tacuinum sanitatis” (medieval health handbook), the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan’s eleventh century “Taqwim al-sihha.”From sweetened ricotta put over cuccia (a wheat berry pudding eaten on St. Lucy’s Day)or piped into cannoli, to ricotta salata grated over pasta (an aged, salted form of ricotta where the curds pressed in wicker baskets to drain and solidify), ricotta is omnipresent in Sicilian cuisine today. As far as how the Normans might have been served ricotta,looking at what Sicily produced, it might have been as simple as ricotta mixed with the island’s incomparable honey and sprinkled with almonds and pistachios.

 

 

THE LEGEND OF SAINT LUCY, Arancini Cuccia and Panelle

Saint LucySaint Lucy of Syracuse (283-304) is the saint of Light and a protector of the Christian Faith, and, in terms of popular tradition, probably the most venerated Sicilian saint in the world. She died during the Diocletian persecution. Lucy was born of rich and noble parents about the year 283. Her father was of Roman origin, but he died when she was five years old, so Lucy and  her mother Eutychia were left without a protective guardian. Lucy had consecrated her virginity to God, and she hoped to distribute her dowry to the poor. However, her mother, not knowing of Lucy’s promise and suffering from a bleeding disorder feared for Lucy’s future. She arranged Lucy’s marriage to a young man of a wealthy pagan family. Eutychia was persuaded to make a pilgrimage to Catania, in hopes of a cure. While there,

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASt. Agatha came to Lucy in a dream and told her that because of her faith her mother would be cured and that Lucy would be the glory of Syracuse, as she was of Catania. With her mother cured, Lucy took the opportunity to persuade her mother to allow her to distribute a great part of her riches among the poor. News that the patrimony and jewels were being distributed came to Lucy’s betrothed, who denounced her to Paschasius, the Governor of Syracuse. Paschasius ordered her to burn a sacrifice to the emperor’s image. When she refused Paschasius sentenced her to be defiled in a brothel. The Christian tradition states that when the guards came to take her away, they could not move her even when they hitched her to a team of oxen. Bundles of wood were then heaped about her and set on fire, but would not burn. Finally, she met her death by the sword. According to the legend Lucia was tortured by eye-gouging .  

Siracusa - festa santa Lucia foto di Alaw277 copy 2 On December 13th of each year, presumably since the XV  Century, Sicilians pay tribute to her, specially at the dinner table. On this  day it is customary to renounce pasta and bread, the traditional Italian every day meal, as well as all other foods containing wheat flour, in her  honor. In Sicily, the majority of food stores are closed on St. Lucy’s Day. So what do we eat? If you are in Palermo, the  answer to this question is obvious: panelle and arancine and cuccìa .

Arancina con carne Palermo copy 

 

Arancine di riso, fried balls of rice (a grain introduced by the  Arabs) typically made with fillings such as tomato sauce with  meat (ragù), butter with peas and prosciutto, and, more  recently, dark chocolate.

 

 

 

 

Siracusa - Cuccia di Santa LuciaThe Cuccìa consists of wheat cooked with wine sugar and flavoured in many ways: adding ricotta and cinnamon or chopped chocolate, milk and chocolate, classic cream or chocolate cream, coffee and sugar.  Panelle, on the other hand, are thin cutlets made of chickpea flour and fried in seed oil. 

”The first depiction of the making of ricotta is an illustration in the medical treatise known as the “Tacuinum sanitatis” (medieval health handbook), the Latin translation of the Arab physician Ibn Butlan’s eleventh century “Taqwim al-sihha

”From sweetened ricotta put over cuccia (a wheat berry pudding eaten on St. Lucy’s Day) or piped into cannoli, to ricotta salata grated over pasta (an aged, salted form of ricotta where the curds pressed in wicker baskets to drain and solidify), ricotta is omnipresent in Sicilian cuisine today. As far as how the Normans might have been served ricotta,looking at what Sicily produced, it might have been as simple as ricotta mixed with the island’s incomparable honey and sprinkled with almonds and pistachios

 

 

 

Panelle sandwich hot n ready for a wedding  by Vanvakys

Once referred to as “piscipanelle”, panelle were traditionally sold by street vendors as a pedestrian snack food. Today, however, panelle have become a popular food in the home, and a “must” among typical Sicilian antipasto selections in restaurants, as well.
Thus, “arancine” and “panelle“, together with ” sweet cuccìa” became the unofficial foods eaten in celebration of the feast day of Saint Lucy.